One of the clearest hallmarks of contemporary interactive fiction design is a focus on experimental point of view. Often, the exquisitely unique mental situation of the protagonist (rather than a series of external conflicts) is the main subject of these works of IF.

I’m thinking here of the crumbling denial of Andrew Plotkin’s Shade or the rigorous self-deception of his Spider and Web, the schizophrenic pastiche of Adam Cadre’s Shrapnel, the trance state of Nick Montfort’s Winchester’s Nightmare, the growing self-awareness of Ian Finley’s Babel and the haunting paranoia of his Kaged, the layers of C. E. Forman’s Delusions and of course the sheer madness of Stephen Granade’s Losing Your Grip… there are many more IF, but you get the idea. Even poet Robert Pinsky’s foray into IF design, Mindwheel, was framed as a psychological exploration.

The exploration of abnormal psychology has been crucial to the last decade of IF writing. This is why I find it so disturbing that Nintendo filed the application for U.S. Patent 6,935,954 on “sanity in video games.”

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Nintendo’s patent outlines a system whereby the sanity of the character is inferred from their behavior, with future experiences registering differently based on the character’s mental state. Online Gamer Database observes that this sounds like a move to secure a limited franchise, and possibly hardware:

Essentially, it describes the sanity system from Eternal Darkness. In fact, one of the inventors of the Sanity System, Dennis Dyack, is the head of Silicon Knights, which created the game. Does this mean we might see a sequel to Eternal Darkness? Maybe so, at least now Nintendo has an option.

As for the “game system” aspect of the patent, I would not put too much emphasis on that. Maybe one feature of the Revolution controller is grips that detect your pulse – which would be very cool, indeed, and Reggie did say that the “revolutionary” aspect was a pre-existing technology that has not been used in video games. Still, I would not hold my breath on that.

Interpreted in this narrow sense, 6,935,954 seems to be no cause for alarm. The application sounds like it has a specifically statistical model (sanity hit-points?) in mind, rather than the factor-based or branching method preferred in even sophisticated psychologies like the mood-inflected conversation system of Emily Short’s Galatea. IF is also not a big-business market sector, so presumably the threat of lawsuits is low. If IF already generally eschews statistical modeling (and arguably isn’t covered by “video game” anyway), why worry?

There are still a few general reasons to be concerned, however. Patents like this one tend to trivialize as novelties the core mechanics of entire genres of experimental work. ‘Sanity’ covers a lot of ground. The presumption here is that games have rational protagonists with direct perceptions of reality, and that game mechanics modeling anything else are a rarified niche market that Nintendo was brilliant enough to invent. Want to write a game where a character might enter or leave a non-normative experience of reality? That sounds like insanity to me, and you may receive a call from a lawyer.

In other words, we are talking about the patenting of an entire aesthetic space. This is the equivalent of a patent on “a method whereby a character develops characteristics correlating to performing moral or immoral acts” - “a method whereby a character unlocks self-knowledge in the presence of familiar objects” - “a method whereby a character experiences an extreme setback in the third act of a four-part progression” etc.

Patenting software is the equivalent of patenting thought. In the U.S., this must currently be done through prior art research, but Europe is in better shape and there is a healthy anti-patent movement. For those who don’t write a lot of software but do have an interest in software’s artistic potential, I encourage you to support both.

[via selectparks]

1 Response to “Patent on Sanity in Video Games”

  1. 1 Jeremy Douglass

    I recently saw a followup mention of this news item on IP Funny, which had the interesting objection that sanity mechanics are common to many table-top role playing game designs. It would be really interesting to follow court arguments over whether RPG and videogame methods of modeling character behavior are essentially similar or essentially different methods.

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